London Fashion Week 2020 saw the opening of the event’s first Swap Shop; Victoria Beckham highlighting sustainability as a challenge that must be responded to in the notoriously wasteful fashion industry; and a group of us chipping in to buy a new kilt for a friend whose old one boasted almost more holes than cloth after incessant use at weddings, pubs and rugby matches.
If you’re not getting the significance of the kilt, check out this animated Selfridges campaign at the British wool section from 1’16” to 1’40”.
Sustainability never used to be a word that sprang automatically to mind in the fashion context.
Fashion has traditionally had a fairly clear split personality: ‘front-row’ status reserved for the super-rich and stick-thin; the rest of us finding joy in knock-off bargains that’ll cost us less than a round of drinks on our night out.
We Brits alone spend more than £60 billion a year on our threads. Total clothing sent to landfill or incineration in the UK rose by 10% (300,000 to 336,000 tonnes) between 2015-2017, according to the charity WRAP, which works to reduce waste and develop sustainability.
Awareness of the issues is on the rise, and designers and retailers from luxury to high street are coming up with innovative initiatives such as fabrics made from fruit husks/skins, return/swap schemes, and clean-ups of their supply chains.
Consumers can help too, as this BBC piece ’10 Fashion ideas that will help save the planet’ outlines.
Is it in vogue yet?
Stella McCartney has always gone against the tide of ‘fast fashion’ and is indignant that only 1% of clothes are recycled: “What are we doing?” she exclaims.
Her philosophy is reflected in her advertising, such as this ‘catwalk’ across a rubbish dump in Scotland (see image at the top of the article).
Both McCartney and fellow Brit Vivienne Westwood, a keen environmental activist, have said it is better for someone to buy one pricey item from their collections than to scoop up 20 cheap ones and discard them almost with no use.
Creations by both McCartney and Westwood featured in a 2019 exhibition, ‘Fashioned From Nature’, at London’s V&A Museum, which explored the relationship between fashion and the natural environment.
Protest has always been present in an industry that blends beauty and exploitation.
Nowadays, upcycling and trashion – the use of discarded or rejected cloth to make trendy new garments – are becoming all the rage, with UK designers like Bethany Williams, Anna Foster and Isabelle Fox challenging the wastefulness of clothing manufacture and bringing social endeavours into the fashion chain.
Pointing to the use of water in traditional denim processes – ‘it takes as much water as one person drinks in 13 years to make one pair of jeans!’ – Foster founded zero-waste E.L.V. Denim, which creates its jeans out of discarded vintage pairs.
Out on the high street, H&M has been offering a garment recycling service across all stores since 2013, while M&S runs a partnership with Oxfam called Shwopping which has seen 30 million garments recycled and £21 million raised for people living in extreme poverty.
Can these endeavours and creative ads inspire us all to see our threads a different way and help build a more sustainable future? Do we all still love a bargain too much and wouldn’t be seen dead twice in the same outfit?
Or is upcycling just another gimmick – whether at luxury or high street level – to sell stuff?
Sustainable fashion campaigner Orsola de Castro, founder of the UK-based global movement Fashion Revolution, fiercely defends the value of upcycling as “the ultimate slowdown, that is why it is so effective as an environmental solution”.
We need to stop seeing waste as waste and start seeing it as a resource, she argues.
Well, that’s something we can all relate to and work towards, designers and consumers alike, right?